My alarm went off at the lovely hour of 4:25 a.m., and I met up with my friend Andrea at 5:30 a.m. to hit the road. We had a smooth trip about 1 hour and 40 minutes south.
The park was pretty, and check in went smoothly. We got our bibs (no chip timing) and shirts and went back to the car for a few minutes. The shirt is nice. There is something about a hill on there??? Wait, there are hills? :-)
We discussed our strategy for the day. There was some confusion about what pace we must maintain on the trail to avoid the sweeper. Our race was to start at 8:00 a.m. Apparently, since the bike race started at 10:30, the cut off was somewhere less than 2:30. We were confident we could finish under 2:30, but we didn't know if the cut off was actually 2:15 or even 2 hours. We probably could have asked an organizer. We just knew the event page specified NO WALKERS and that all runners must be off the course before 10:30.
This was a small event, and looking around before the start, we noticed most of the field looked fit. Very fit. I saw at least three Ironman hats and shirts and probably less than 100 runners. There were many more men than women. We knew we definitely didn't want to be last! I ran an 18-miler last weekend, and I was afraid fatigue would slow me down. We knew there would be at least one biggish hill (according to the shirt). I had found this elevation profile online a few days earlier. It doesn't show the full 9 miles, but some of them.
Andrea and I take a VERY laid back approach to trail running generally. We just relax and enjoy nature and take pictures and chat. It is very relaxing. Not today.
Today, we were all business once the horn sounded. We ran scared. We rarely clock 11-minute miles on technical trails, but today we clocked the first three miles in the 11's. We did notice early on that our frequent trail runs gave us an advantage on the muddy and steep uphills and downhills. We weren't afraid of them, while many (new trail runners maybe?) would come to a full stop to try to navigate the least-muddy path and hike very carefully down. We passed a few people in the first few miles on muddy slopes. We've learned that sometimes, you just have to run right through the mud, and it's actually pretty fun! I know I used to do the same thing. I guess after you fall on trails a few times, the thought of it is less daunting!
The trails were just starting to green up--we've had a LONG winter here in Tennessee. Pictures from past races show more spring foilage than we had today. These are two I borrowed from a blog called Ravine-ravings courtesy of Google Images. I didn't want to pause long enough to take any!
This was a neat area where we ran through bamboo.
We were able to estimate how many people were behind us at any given time due to many, many switchbacks. At one time, we thought there were only three behind us, but there were several others farther back on the trail. But thinking we were 3rd from last?? That kept us running, actually racing, rather than relaxing. (They do call it a "race," I suppose.) I was struggling though. My breathing and heart rate were higher than normal for the pace I was running. My legs definitely had some residual fatigue in them. The good part was we kept picking off one runner at a time. It felt like we were chasing them down. We'd see one up ahead and reel her in. By mile five or six, we could breathe a little sigh of relief knowing there were 6-8 behind us at least! (There were many more than that, we just couldn't see them!) We ran a steady, but pushing, pace. We were chasing runners and the sweeper (on a mountain bike) was chasing all of us!
The trail was overall very runnable. It was rocky in places, very muddy, and somewhat narrow in places where it went through a grassy field (to fit mountain bike tires better than human size 10.5's)
We still didn't know the time cut off, but we estimated we'd finish the 9-mile trail race around 2:00-2:05 if the "big hill" wasn't too bad. There were many inclines and declines throughout, but The Dump Hill was the one pictured on the shirt. We found it in mile 6 or 7. It was a tough climb. It was a lung and leg burner, but not all that long or all that steep, AND there was only ONE of it, so that helped. (Tick Ridge had about 6-8 of those!) We train regularly at two local trails that have a similar hill to this one and on a long road hill, so it didn't seem all that bad.
Around mile 8, I picked up the pace to try to finish under two hours. My breathing was ragged (it had strangely been all day-- I think it's called "racing"), but I pushed with what little I had on those miles. I'm not a fast road or trail runner. Slow and steady is actually my favorite pace.
Much of the last .25 was uphill in the grass heading back to the start. That was tough. I felt a little nauseated. It had gotten really warm (40 at the start, 62 at the finish), and I was ready to be done! I crossed the line in 1:56, according to my Garmin, about a 12:56 pace. I was 7th in the 40-49 year old age group out of 19. We had the biggest female age group by far! Other female age groups only had 2-5 runners. The overall winning female (30-39) ran a 9:00 minute pace for comparison! She killed it, and I think it was her first trail race.
Sooo...... Andrea and I finished. We weren't last (by a long shot!). We made the cut off. We got really muddy. We had an adventure. Road trip 5:30 a.m. adventures are the best.